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Lobbyist Registrar Wants to Tighten Up Rules

New recommendation would limit the times and places at which lobbyists could communicate with City officials.

In a report released Wednesday morning, Toronto’s lobbyist registrar called for new rules that would limit the opportunities for communication between registered lobbyists and members of city council.

Lobbying at City Hall has come under renewed scrutiny lately, as reports show a substantial increase in lobbying activity during this term of council in general; anecdotally, many councillors have said that the lobbying around a potential casino in particular has been intense.

The lobbyist registrar, Linda Gehrke, is recommending the following new limits on lobbying activity:

Lobbyists shall not communicate with public office holders except on business days during regular hours of business (8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.) or during the hours of other scheduled meetings of Council and its committees, and for members of a local board, during meetings of the local boards, at offices of the City or a local board, including the constituency offices of a member of Council.

The lobbying bylaw [PDF] defines a communication as “any form of expressive contact, and includes oral, written or electronic communication”—which means that according to this proposal, a lobbyist who sent an email to a councillor’s office at 6:02 p.m. on a Tuesday would be in violation of the rules.

Whether this is a good constraint that protects the public interest, or an impractical one given today’s 24-hour-a-day business culture, depends, of course, on who you ask.

The registrar declined to comment on her recommendation yesterday, with a member of her staff saying Gehrke would provide more details when it goes before council’s executive committee next week.

The registrar also didn’t provide a specific explanation in her proposal as to why she is putting this forward now. By way of context, Gehrke cited the Bellamy Inquiry—an investigation into improperly managed computer leasing contracts in the late-’90s. In her report on that case, Judge Bellamy did recommend that “access to councillors and staff should be restricted to regular office hours and locations”—but that was issued in 2005, and the City’s lobbying bylaw was passed in 2007. Speculation yesterday tied the recommendation to an incident in October, in which city councillor Ana Bailão (Ward 18, Davenport) was arrested for impaired driving after leaving a bar; at least one registered lobbyist working on casinos was reportedly present, though all involved maintain that no official business was discussed. In April 2012, deputy mayor Doug Holyday (Ward 3, Etobicoke Centre) also raised concerns about lobbying, and asked the City’s solicitor to explore the possibility of prohibiting lobbying by the casino industry entirely. (She recommended against it, finding that it could, among other things, be unconstitutional [PDF].)

The lobbying bylaw includes an exemption for “casual communication at a public gathering such as a charitable event, community or civic event, or festival, in keeping with protocol for the event and if the communication does not materially advance a matter.” Prohibiting all contact between councillors and lobbyists outside of their formal, registered interactions is, speaking practically, more or less impossible: they often attend the same events, and even those very worried about lobbying admit that rules prohibiting basic social niceties would be going too far.

John Capobianco, president of the Public Affairs Association of Canada, will be reviewing the proposal with PAAC’s board later today.

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